The BJP sees an inalienable link between itself and Jammu and Kashmir; a close connection between the trouble in the state and its own inception as a party. The man who establishes this link is Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a Bengali barrister, educationist and once-member of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, who died on June 23, 1953 in Srinagar Jail, where he had been imprisoned for violating prohibitory orders issued by the state government of Sheikh Abdullah. Two years previously, in 1951, Mookerjee had founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the political arm of the RSS, and the predecessor and first avatar of the BJP.
The process of integration of Jammu & Kashmir with the Indian Union was long and tortuous. Negotiations on the precise status of the state vis-à-vis the Union continued well into the summer of 1952, five years after Independence. In July of that year, after Sheikh Abdullah met with Nehru and his senior Ministers in New Delhi, an agreement was drafted defining the contours of J&K’s autonomy. It was agreed that J&K’s flag would be flown side-by-side with the Tricolour; in case of internal disturbances, India would not be able to send forces without permission from the state government; residuary powers which, in the case of all states lay with the Centre would, in the case of J&K, rest with the state; and no ‘outsider’ would be able to buy land or property in the state in order that the possibility of a change in the population profile of the state could be forestalled.
But Sheikh Abdullah wanted more. He declared that only J&K would decide what powers to give to India, and to what extent the writ of the Supreme Court would run in the state. He informed the young Karan Singh, the Dogra yuvraj who was the Head of State, that if he “did not break up with the reactionary elements”, he would be deposed like his father, Maharaja Hari Singh.
By “reactionary elements”, the Sheikh meant the Hindus of Jammu, who were agitating for full integration with India, raising the slogan “Ek desh mein do vidhaan, do pradhaan, do nishaan, nahin chalega, nahin chalega”. The Jammu Hindus had been loyal subjects of the Maharaja; also, they feared the extension of Sheikh Abdullah’s socialist land reforms to Jammu, which had already resulted in big (and mostly Hindu) landowners in Kashmir losing vast tracts of their land.
In Jammu, the leadership of the agitation against the Valley-based National Conference was with the Praja Parishad, a political party founded in 1949 by the veteran local leader Prem Nath Dogra. Sheikh Abdullah was contemptuous of the Parishad, dismissing them as feudal reactionaries. In 1951, the National Conference won all 75 seats to the J&K Constituent Assembly after the Parishad boycotted the election protesting alleged unfair practices.
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The voice of the Jammu Hindus was amplified in the rest of India by the support it received from Dr Mookerjee. Syama Prasad, the son of the legendary jurist and educationist Sir Asutosh Mookerjee, had been in politics since 1929, and had left Nehru’s Cabinet following disagreements on a range of issues including Jammu & Kashmir. On October 21, 1951, he had become the founder president of the Jana Sangh. The new party contested the elections of 1952, but could win only three seats in Parliament.
In the House, Mookerjee was scathing in his criticism of the government’s policy in J&K. He demanded to know who had made Sheikh Abdullah, a man with unacceptable “divided loyalty”, a “King of Kings”, and pressed for making the state a part of India with no special concessions. At least Jammu and Ladakh, he said, should be allowed to fully integrate with the Union. In the latter half of 1952, Mookerjee visited Jammu and spoke in favour of the Praja Parishad’s “just and patriotic” agitation. As government moved to Jammu from Srinagar that winter, the Parishad intensified its protests, and there were repeated clashes with the police.
In January 1953, Mookerjee wrote to Nehru, backing the Parishad’s “highly patriotic and emotional” movement to “merge completely with India”. He also asked Nehru how he proposed to get back the part of Kashmir that had been illegally occupied by Pakistan, saying it would be “nothing short of national disgrace and humiliation” if India failed to recover its territory. He repeatedly asked Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah to stop the crackdown on the Parishad, release it leaders from custody, and call a meeting of all stakeholders on J&K.
Mookerjee was not able to persuade Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah to climb down. The Prime Minister insisted that the Parishad should first call off its agitation; Mookerjee wanted that the government should announce talks before anything else. With matters deadlocked, Mookerjee took the agitation to the streets in Delhi. Jana Sangh workers, along with those of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Ram Rajya Parishad, offered satyagraha outside police stations, and courted arrest. By April 1953, as many as 1,300 protesters had been arrested, according to scholarship on that period.
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On May 8, 1953, Syama Prasad started out for Jammu, with the intention of heading to Srinagar thereafter. Sheikh Abdullah’s government issued orders restricting his movement and, after Syama Prasad proceeded regardless, arrested him on May 11. Syama Prasad was lodged in jail in Srinagar.
In prison, Syama Prasad read Hindu philosophy and wrote letters. In the beginning of June, he took ill, and complained of a fever and pain in his legs. On June 22, he suffered a heart attack, and passed away on June 23, 1953.
His body was flown to Calcutta the following day and was greeted by an outpouring of grief and support. The BJP has ever since held up his “sacrifice” as the reason and inspiration for its goal of uniting J&K fully with the Indian Union.